A Third Approach to the Law of Armed Conflict: Reading the Lieber Code as Strategic Lawfare

In part three of the introduction to The Laws of Yesterday’s War (edited by Samuel White), Christopher M. Bailey examines the lasting legacy of the Lieber Code on the Law of Armed Conflict. Part one and Part two of The Laws of Yesterday’s War series are also online. 

Today’s security environment is increasingly defined by a range of advanced technologies involving artificial intelligence, outer space access, 3D printing and cyberspace. Actors around the globe are wrestling with the opportunities and risks inherent in technological advancement and change. In the face of these changes, actors are becoming more aware that they must consider the impact these advancements will have on the law of armed conflict (LOAC) and how LOAC might restrict or enable these capabilities in conflict. At the core of these debates is the implicit question; what role should the law play in the context of war: a neutral arbiter attempting to regulate and minimise the harms of conflict or a means for States to prioritise the use of force?.   

This debate, however, is nothing new and the tension over the role of the law in armed conflict has parallels throughout history. In Samuel White’s new book, The Laws of Yesterday’s Wars, I assess this same tension during the 1861-1865 United States Civil War with a particular focus on the role law played in the Union’s strategy against the Southern Confederacy. It was the law professor and Union Army adviser, Francis Lieber, who ultimately crafted a third approach to the role of law in conflict in General Orders No. 100, popularly known as the Lieber Code. Instead of viewing the law either as a set of neutral rules that overlay armed conflict or more pessimistically as a mechanism that only serves to legitimise force, Lieber recognised that the law itself can be a point of contest and conflict in war.      

Law as a Neutral Arbiter or Mechanism to Legitimate the Use of Force 

A traditional view of LOAC is that the law’s central role in armed conflict is to reduce the harm suffered by all combatants. In this view the law is neutral to the participants, and instead shapes the conflict ‘environment’ equally for all parties in order to reduce the suffering of all participants, whether a combatant or bystander. This traditional view is often associated with Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, the precursor to today’s International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in the mid-19th century. According to this view, LOAC’s primary role is to limit or reduce the worst harms of war. This view is even reflected in the different phrases used to describe LOAC including ‘international humanitarian law’ or IHL. 

In contrast, some commentators take a more critical view of the role of LOAC and instead point to its use to legitimise the use of force as simply another tool of States to impose their will. Under this view, the law enables States to wage conflict as it is States themselves that create the legal boundaries and restrictions of armed conflict. Scholars often cite this view when arguing that States’ humanitarian concerns are secondary to the ability to rationalise or justify the use of force. While scholars have debated the morality and ethical implications of this view and some have even argued the Lieber Code as evidence of law used to legitimise force, I argue that there is a subtle but important nuance in the Lieber Code that implicitly articulated a third approach to the use of law in war.    

Articulating the Lieber Code as a Form of Strategic Lawfare 

Commissioned in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army, Lieber’s stated task was to create a document that codified the existing laws of war at the time. Since its inception, the Lieber Code has been lauded as the United States’ first codification of the laws of war.  While the Lieber Code certainly did represent this codification, I argue that the Lieber Code’s true legacy for LOAC was Lieber’s implicit assessment that the law itself could be used to achieve military effects or objectives, a concept today that is popularly known as ‘lawfare’.  Lawfare as a term often views the law itself as a point of contest and conflict between the parties, where combatants actively try and shape the narrative and legal analysis to enable their military strategies against the other.   

To best understand how the Lieber Code can be seen as a form of strategic lawfare, my chapter in The Laws of Yesterday’s Wars first addresses the role political and cultural ideology played in shaping public perceptions of the Civil War. A key issue at stake was how the laws of war would be applied to the conflict. The chapter explores how differing views on what law should apply to the Civil War conflict became a hotly contested issue due to two key aspects of the code: 1) the concept of military necessity in military targeting, and 2) authorisation to free any enslaved people held by an opposing force. These sections of the Lieber Code, when read together, provided the Union Army a powerful legal argument to target the Southern Confederacy’s war sustaining economy and the institution of slavery itself.   

Relying on the historical research and insights of scholars like John Fabian Witt and Sir Adam Roberts, I argue these provisions of the Lieber Code in particular were not designed to be neutral to the parties nor just a pessimistic tool for the State to enforce its will, but instead a recognition that the law can and will be disputed and contested in conflict between the warring parties.  Understanding what was at stake in the Civil War, Lieber’s work should be viewed as a strategic form of lawfare.   

The lasting legacy of the Lieber Code is that LOAC is not static but dynamic.  This contest is visible today as commentators, scholars and practitioners alike attempt to codify, advocate and shape both the law itself and its interpretations. Whether in new conflicts or wrestling with new technologies, Lieber’s dynamism highlights that LOAC can be shaped by a range of actors and while there is a risk that LOAC could be misused or subverted to justify illegitimate force, it can also innovate in order to expand humanitarian protections while enabling legitimate force. Thus, which path the law takes in war is a conflict all its own. 

Christopher M. Bailey currently serves as a United States Air Force judge advocate. He has a Master of Laws degree in Space, Cyber, and Communications Law from University of Nebraska College of Law and a Juris Doctor degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force. Further, the appearance of external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the Department of Defense of the linked websites, or the information, products, or services contained therein.